Selling sex to kids

July 17, 2005
Toronto Sun
By Joanne Richard

A young girl is lying on the floor, her hand tucked suggestively in her pants. She looks as though she is about to masturbate.

She's actually selling blue jeans.

Soft porn to sell fashion to children is a disturbing phenomenon that is growing increasingly more common.

Experts are concerned: The shameless sexualization of pre-teens in ads reinforces the belief that it's acceptable to treat children as sexual beings.

"Perhaps when we surround ourselves with sexualized images of young people we shouldn't be surprised that a segment of the society think that it is okay to have sex with children," says Cathy Wing, of Media-Awareness, a non-profit educational organization for media literacy.

Impressionable, inexperienced pre-teens and teens are unrelentingly targeted with too many inappropriate, highly sexualized advertising images, including depictions of masturbation, fetishism, sexual violence and domination. And according to the experts, the level of sexual and pornographic portrayals found in various media has multiplied over the past decade.

The fashion industry has been using younger and younger models, and now commonly portrays 13- and 14-year-olds as men and women, says Wing, director of community programming. "These ads are selling more than clothing to young people, they're also selling adult sexuality."

Repeat offenders: Buffalo Jeans, Guess, Skechers, Versace, Calvin Klein and Gucci.

Media expert Jane Tallim says there's definitely a disturbing emergence over the past two decades of highly eroticized images of young women and they're getting younger and younger. "The same trend applies to men: Images of very young men commonly focus on the abdominal/genital area, with traces of pubic hair or genital 'bulge' clearly visible."

Portrayals of highly sexualized youth are not just a marketing tool, says Tallim, "they also deliver powerful messages about sexual behaviour to young people and about gender relations."

Kids are commodities

They're being commodified and sexualized to the general public. "This is what ultimately normalizes and mainstreams expectations and attitudes about sexuality as it relates to young people."

According to Tallim, director of education at Media-Awarness, increased sexualization in advertising is not happening in isolation; rather, it reflects the overall disturbing trend that is occurring throughout the media.

"In film, television, music videos and popular culture, sex is increasingly pervasive and mainstream -- for example, music videos of artists such as Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera have been directed by well-known directors of pornographic films."

According to Wing, there is so much competition in the industry companies feel they have to push the envelope more each time to be noticed. And it's forcing tweens to grow up quickly. "Industry research reveals that children 11 and older don't consider themselves children anymore."

Wing says it's difficult for teens to develop healthy attitudes towards sexuality and body image when much of the advertising aimed at them is filled with images of impossibly thin, fit, beautiful and highly sexualized young people.

"The underlying marketing message is that there is a link between physical beauty and sex appeal and popularity, success and happiness."

Dr. Arlette Lefebvre has grave concerns about children's continual exposure to unrealistic sexualized role models: Self-esteem, body image and expectations regarding sexual behaviour are gravely affected, she says.

Worrying about their bodies

"One of the reasons why I am trying to draw parents' attention to this topic is because when I am on call for Sick Kids, I cover the in-patient Eating Disorders Unit and I am shocked each time I walk into there about two things -- the fact that younger and younger teens and pre-teens, both female and male, are diagnosed with this disorder; and, the severity and chronicity of their condition (high relapse rate after discharge)."

Lefebvre says many children, even at the young age of six or seven, identify dissatisfaction with their bodies and talk about being too fat.

"One of the reasons for this, I believe, is the sexualization of pre-teens in marketing and the fact kids growing up today are bombarded with images of skinny and scantily-clad pre-teen models made to look like mini-adults and photographed in provocative poses.

"This gives kids and adults the message that it's okay to treat young children as sexual objects and to expect them to want to conform to our society's parameters for what is considered sexy, instead of focusing on normal healthy growth and development, according to which sexual activity and interest are relatively dormant until puberty," she says.

Meanwhile, the back of Britney Spears' pants say she's 'a slave' -- that's giving impressionable adolescent girls the wrong message about how relationships work, says Lefebvre. "Girls as young as seven and eight are asking to wear clothes that expose a lot of skin, lots of cleavage and belly, tiny t-shirts that read 'baby doll' with little pacifier-type suckers attached, giving a mixed message of both innocence and provocativeness, which invites sexual overtures."